The EU says the decision could be vital for anticipating the spread of disease, but detractors are calling it a breach of privacy
Yesterday, the GSMA announced that eight major European telecoms have agreed to share anonymised mobile phone location data with the European Commission to track the spread of coronavirus.
The aggregation of anonymous data will be analysed to help predict the spread of the virus and help coordinate healthcare responses.
“In the fight against this sanitary crisis, it is paramount that we anticipate the spread of the pandemic, and its likely peak in each country,” explained European Commission’s internal market chief Thierry Breton. “This is crucial in order to plan the supply of medical equipment.”
The telcos currently part of this scheme are Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, Telecom Italia, Telenor, Telia, and A1 Telekom Austria, with the door open for further operators to follow suit.
There is, of course, a question of privacy when it comes to the sharing of this data, but so long as it is anonymised it falls outside the remit of EU data protection laws.
In its announcement, the EU Commission said the data usage will be compliant with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and ePrivacy legislation and also swore to delete the data once the crisis is over. The EU’s data watchdog says the plan is feasible, provided certain safeguards are put in place, including a clearly defined target dataset and access limited to “authorised experts in spatial epidemiology, data protection and data science”.
There are fears, however, that such a data intrusion could indeed become permanent, with state surveillance worldwide increasing rapidly in response to the pandemic. Many countries have been quick to implement widespread technological surveillance to help stem the spread of COVID-19, but it remains to be seen if these emergency measures will be immediately and completely rescinded once the outbreak is finally brought under control.
At the heart of this issue is a fundamental philosophical question: at what point should civil liberties be sacrificed for the greater good of society? Massed personal data is an invaluable commodity in this digital age and its irresponsible and unethical usage can have terrifying consequences – the Cambridge Analytica scandal comes to mind, for example. But here is a situation where offering up anonymised private data could be used to indirectly save thousands of lives. The head of the European Data Protection Supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiorowski, described this situation as “extraordinary” and perhaps it is only natural that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
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